If Richard Littlejohn didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up

Censoring the Daily Mail columnist, particularly in the wake of Lucy Meadows’ death, is tempting. But his views are still shared by millions, and worse is said on social media every single minute.

“Niggers put the ape in rape.” If an opinion columnist wrote that on the websites attached to their newspapers, we’d be facing questions in the Commons, earnest debates on Newsnight, and a lazy column about how “nigger” isn’t really a bad word after all scribbled on the back of a fag packet by one of the professional attention-seekers at Spiked!. This sentiment was posted on Twitter though, and nobody really cares because, well . . . Twitter.

It can be pretty eye-opening to search Twitter for words like “nigger”, “paki” and similar slurs; and by “eye-opening” I mean that it makes you want to carve your testicles or ovaries out of your bleeding flesh so that humankind can be put out of its misery as quickly as possible. Bigotry, harassment, defamation, the outing of rape victims – all of these are routine on social media, and yet few on the left have suggested that press regulation should apply to Twitter or Facebook.

Of course we wouldn’t treat Facebook or Twitter like we would a newspaper, because Twitter is Twitter – it’s not the news . . . is it? A recent Pew Research Centre study looked at the percentage of Americans getting their news from TV, radio, newspapers or the internet. Television still holds the lead at 55 per cent; but 39 per cent get their news online, the gap having closed by 12 points in four years. A third get their news from radio, while newspapers languish in last place at 29 per cent. Among under-30s the change is more extreme: only 34 per cent got their news from the TV, while 33 per cent got it from social media, against just 13 per cent from newspapers . . . and yes, that includes their digital editions. 

The “press” isn’t some distinct entity or industry, and other than for a few decades in the mid-twentieth century it never really has been. The press is people, and unfortunately a lot of people have really shitty views. 

One of those people is the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn, a man who approaches the topic of sexuality the way a mildly horny dog investigates a lizard; fearful yet irresistibly drawn. Suggesting that children might be traumatised by their teacher’s gender reassignment, he cruelly remarked: “He’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.”  The teacher in question, Lucy Meadows, later died; and now a petition is calling for the prize-winning columnist to be sacked.

As always, you can find worse online. Littlejohn can rely on support from the strange little men who inhabit the Stormfront forum: insecure, dim-witted losers who are frightened of foreigners and therefore a key tabloid demographic. “Argh! Wibble! Sodomy!” they wail from behind their cowardly cloaks of anonymity (I’m paraphrasing, slightly). Not that their support is entirely without reservation: “Richard Littlejohn is of course a paid puppet for Big Jew, even if he is right about this,” notes one. Is Stormfront an extreme example? No, just try doing a realtime search on Twitter for “trannies”. Or indeed “Jews” – “Glad the Nazi’s (sic) killed a fuck load of Jews” exclaims one waggish tweep.

Source: NoHomophobes.com

To call Littlejohn a bully overestimates his level of agency.  He is a bloated parody of a right-wing columnist; a pantomime villain wheeled out to mutter the same faux-angry catchphrases week after week with the apathetic delivery of a Punch and Judy puppet operated by a bitter old man who secretly hates children. I doubt Meadows was anything more to him than a convenient hook on which to hang that week’s drivel about the evils of “PC gone mad” – to assume otherwise would be to imply that he puts thought into anything he writes, and it’s just as likely that my washing machine is sentient.  

I’d like nothing more than to see him sacked, but Littlejohn is the melting, mildew-infested tip of a giant iceberg of piss. His behaviour has been fairly mild in comparison to other journalists, let alone the wider internet. As a focal point for public anger, he is little more than a convenient avatar; a man who embodies the essence of the right-wing tabloids we hate. If Richard Littlejohn didn’t exist, you’d have to make him up.   

His column contained nothing that would count as discrimination under the PCC code, though. It’s this insidiousness that makes the monstering of vulnerable people by the press so difficult to tackle – any attempt at regulation can easily be side-stepped with coded language, scare quotes, or the use of a convenient third party to hang your views on. The same applies to Stuart Pike’s original reporting in the Accrington Observer; and rightly so unless you believe that a local journalist should be prevented from seeking out and reporting the views of local parents, however contemptuous we might think those views to be. It’s hard to see how any new system of press regulation could have made in impact in this case.

Still, it would be lovely to shut him up, which is why the reaction of the Trans Media Watch campaign group to this mess has been so impressive, tweeting: “As a charity we prefer to build positive relationships and bring about change through education, providing training and resources for media.”

"We understand the anger behind calls for Richard Littlejohn to be sacked,” they told me. “He has persistently belittled trans people in his columns, but we feel that the real problem is bigger than one man and we don't want to see him become a scapegoat, allowing others to avoid responsibility.”

The reaction of the trans community and allies has been wonderful to watch, and will send a powerful message to columnists tempted to write similar bullshit in the future. My worry though is that we risk fixating on convenient villains at the expense of addressing the wider problem. It’s comforting to imagine that most people aren’t bigots and that without the Daily Mail these views wouldn’t be so widespread, but the reality is that Littlejohn still represents millions of people; people who have the same right to their opinions that we do, whether we like it or not.  Sacking or censoring him changes nothing.

For all the myths about Rupert Murdoch’s power, the press has become just another part of the web, indistinct from the parts around it. Newspapers like the Mail and Guardian are becoming multi-author blog networks with mostly American audiences, even as blogs of all shapes and sizes become primary sources of news reporting. At the heart of all this, Twitter and Facebook have become more important at deciding which news gets read than any newspaper editor. In the face of this change, the Leveson inquiry and the Royal Charter it spawned have been defined by their total inability to define “the press” in terms beyond “we’ll know it when we see it”.

Nobody can explain why a damaging statement on one website should be treated any differently to an equally damaging statement on another, just because that website used to be printed on bits of paper and posted to people’s houses, or is run by a non-profit, or employs fewer than 250 journalists, or whatever other post-hoc test you want to devise in an attempt to ring-fence the “bad guys” (and as the Guardian ’s director of editorial legal services, Gill Phillips, points out, to do so may fall foul of the European Court of Human Rights). Neither will a system applied to 0.00001 per cent of domain names make any difference to the wider problem of bigoted attitudes online. Either you want to regulate the internet, or you don’t.

If I had my way, the seedy little tabloids I don’t like would be banned and their bullying hacks thrown in the stocks, but that’s precisely why I shouldn’t have my way – because ultimately I’m demanding that a body should be set up to censor someone I don’t like, and that’s a really shitty way to approach an incredibly complex problem, one liable to cause many more problems than it solves.

The way to deal with corrosive attitudes in society is to expose them and deal with them, not silence people and hope they go away. As Trans Media Watch pointed out to me, the petition to sack Littlejohn “has shown clearly what the public thinks of transphobic journalism”. Hopefully at least some writers and editors are paying attention.

A Littlejohn Iceberg.

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle